Earning Forgiveness

There are some things that can’t be forgiven, as the world understands forgiveness. These are things for which only punishment is possible—things for which no punishment can be enough; things that inspire the hatred of everyone, across political lines, usually involving children: their abuse, their murder, their abandonment, their neglect. There’s a reason why it is a cliché that even the people who commit the worst crimes are considered above child abusers in the hierarchy of a prison population.

Forgiveness seems to demand that things be put right in some way, and when they cannot be put right, it seems that forgiveness itself is impossible. Mass (2021; in theaters) tries to work out the conditions under which forgiveness might be given and received. I was able to see the film through Image (which, if you are at all interested in the intersections between faith and various art forms, is the journal to which you should subscribe), along with a brief Q & A with the writer/director Fran Kranz and Ann Dowd, who plays Linda.

One of the points that is raised in the Q & A is the cinematic time that is necessary to get to the point of giving and receiving forgiveness, signaled in the film by the moment when Gail (Martha Plimpton) says, “I think I’m ready.” Less time and less work and less attention would devalue the entire encounter. Except for relatively brief bookends, the entire film takes place in a room with four people. It feels at times like a play, but Kranz makes the point that he wanted the viewer to be forced, like the characters, to sit there and work through it. Jay (Jason Isaacs) and Richard (Reed Birney) make somewhat half-hearted attempts at political discourse about guns and crime, but it feels cheap in that space. There is no room there, under those circumstances, to draw the old, tired partisan lines of social-media politicking. It won’t go.

Instead, we must let the entire process of grief, anger, hatred, recrimination, sorrow, and loss play itself out. It can’t be hurried or short-circuited. And there’s something that must be earned. It is not forgiveness itself that has to be earned, but the possibility of forgiveness. Forgiveness has to be given, unearned, or it is not actually forgiveness. It costs, but it cannot be repaid. It is a cost that is paid by the giver, and the receiver is completely dependent on that gift.

In some way, and by someone, space for forgiveness has to be cleared in the wreckage. That space is cleared in the center of these four characters, literally under the sign of the cross. And it is primarily Linda, through her patience and willingness to remain, to accept whatever feelings and words begin to clutter the air, who makes room in the midst of the incomprehensible pain. Though none of the main characters refer to religion or Christianity by anything more than a passing phrase, Kranz describes the setting of the church as necessary in some way, providing precisely the space for an unspoken safety and an indescribable healing.

Christians would certainly go further toward the center of that forgiveness in a certain Man, but Mass is a powerful and difficult meditation on both the impossibility of forgiveness and its necessity.